Truth, Justice: the American Way?

Matthew Dowd

By Matthew Dowd

May 24, 2013 6:00am

What happens in our relationships when we keep secrets?  When we think telling the truth brings harm or that hiding something serves a broader purpose?  It usually means trust doesn’t exist and the relationship is doomed to either failure or one that loses all sense of intimacy and closeness and openness.

A few years ago I wrote a column defending WikiLeaks  and what it was trying to do with governments around the world by releasing secrets and attempting to open up a closed process so that all citizens could see what was going on and maybe get a few steps closer to the truth. This column brought widespread reaction.

The main opponents of what WikiLeaks did (and I admit WikiLeaks wasn’t totally clean in how they revealed things and did it at times in a ham-handed way) use an argument that is really based on the ends justifying the means.  That it serves a greater purpose to hide the truth, and at times mislead, because it will benefit people in the end.  I have become a passionate opponent of this strategy at nearly every turn.  Contrarily, I believe the means actually justify the ends.

So here we are with recent events and we have instances of the Obama administration’s hiding the truth, misleading the public and ham-handedly investigating journalists whose desire is to reveal the truth.  We now know the Justice Department has gone after the Associated Press and a reporter with Fox News for what it believes is revealing secrets that put the country at risk.  Their premise seems to be, If someone tells the truth, the country will be harmed.

First, there has been no evidence that this is the case. No one has put forth a set of facts that says the country was truly at risk in all this.  We are just supposed to trust what someone says in government because it knows better.  If what the government is saying is actually true, then let us all see the credible and direct evidence that shows a connection between revealing these secrets and harm.

Secondly, and I believe more importantly, we have a first amendment for a reason.  Let us not forget radicals and revolutionaries from more than 200 years ago put their lives, careers and families at great risk to establish a freedom of speech and a freedom of the press.  These freedoms were supposed to be a way to get to the truth regardless of who was in power.

So by this current administration’s actions, as well as actions from previous administrations (this isn’t a partisan problem; it is bipartisan circumventing of the constitution and our most basic liberty), the truth becomes a casualty in some broader pursuit of a greater goal.  What is more important than the truth? Do we really feel more secure in either our personal lives or in our civic lives when we are protected by a lie or the darkness of a secret?

I find it ironic that our current president, whom I respect at many levels, was a constitutional law professor just a few years ago.  Seriously, if he weren’t president today, Professor Obama would be up in arms over the actions of President Obama and his administration.  In fact, he was up in arms over similar things involving the administration of President Bush. It seems that when people want to keep and possess power and control, the first victim is openness and a genuine discovery of the truth.

Yes, I know there are compromises in governing as well as in our own more intimate relationships.  However, if these compromises involve the rationalization that the truth will cause harm and that a sense of loving openness is harmful, then what is it that one is compromising for? Once truth and love are lost along the way, then what really is it that we are protecting?

In the end, I believe to err on the side of telling the truth is best, and to have a more open and transparent system will provide a place for trust.  We have become such a dysfunctional democracy and the sense of trust in our government is at an all-time low, that the ability to get anything positive done moving into the future is all but impossible.

I suggest our leaders of today and tomorrow start by opening up government more, allowing light into the dark recesses of decision making and letting folks decide for themselves what is important to them.  (Haven’t we learned from the closed and secret system of the Catholic Church that dishonest behavior never works, and that the philosophy of the ends justifying the means only leads to bad ends?)

Let’s begin with the idea that the values of truth and love are the most important and do everything possible to protect both.  We can start with each other more in our personal lives and communities,  and maybe our government will follow our lead.  Because in the end, Washington isn’t filled with leaders, it is filled with followers.  The power is ultimately in our own hands and how we deal with each other. It may be disruptive and upsetting, but it actually will get us closer to a just and compassionate world.

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